If the school your child is placed in is good, but another school in the same area has a higher ranking, would you choose to send them to the latter instead?
“If it’s in the same area, of course!” said Ng May Huang, a mother of two.
She might not be representative of the entire population of parents in Malaysia, but there is no denying that there are a large number of people out there who share her mindset.
According to the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) roadmap, performance of all 10,000 primary and secondary schools in Malaysia will be ranked on a yearly basis and published from 2010 onwards.
The reason the Ministry of Education is undertaking a ranking system such as this is to create transparency in school performances. It hopes that by making public the information, the general populace will learn the actual performance of schools, and schools across the nation will be motivated to elevate the level of performance in a competitive environment.
The government also proudly mentioned that the complete ranking of all public schools was made for the first time in the history of the Malaysian education system, based on the 2008 academic year results and the school’s scores in the Standard for Quality Education in Malaysia (SQEM).
Now, in the year 2013, the lists of ranking from previous years have yet to be seen despite the early signs of progress stated in the roadmap.
The failure of the GTP in achieving the roadmap’s vision may be celebrated by those whose viewpoint is different from that of the Ministry of Education.
When the then Education Minister, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, announced the ministry’s intention of implementing a star-rating system for schools back in 2007, the idea was opposed strongly by Ong Chiow Chuen, the chairman of the United Chinese School Teachers Association (Jiao Zong). He was quoted saying, “Schools awarded a five-star rating will see a drastic increase in students; this will create an imbalance as nobody will care about schools with low ratings.”
Ong was concerned that this move would prompt parents to go out of their way to ensure their children are placed in schools that are highly rated. His concern was not unfounded.
Mok, a Culinology student at Taylor’s University, said that when he was younger, his parents were adamant about getting him and his brother into a renowned primary school near his home.
“My brother’s application failed the first time, but my parents knew someone from the inside and succeeded in enrolling my brother in the school with a little ‘monetary support’ given.”
Although there is a standard procedure of allocating students based on their living area by the local state education department, this has not stopped parents or students from using various means to beat the system in place.
One such student is 15-year-old Wong Xi Khai. He knew the chances of enrolling in his dream school in Petaling Jaya would be slim if he had used his actual housing address in Subang Jaya. For that reason, his mother had him submit her friend’s address instead, using the utility bill as ‘proof’ in his secondary school enrolment application.
Although the complete ranking of all public schools in Malaysia has not been broadcast yet, the GTP did introduce a different type of ranking for schools—the High Performance Schools (HPS) concept—in 2010. It serves to set the benchmark for academic and non-academic achievement excellence for all school types in Malaysia to aspire towards, and reward the schools which have achieved the HPS status. One of the rewards is financial incentive, to encourage the continuous improvement of the schools.
Alvin Auh, a lecturer at the Gaya Campus of the Institute of Teacher Education (IPG), is in support of the HPS concept but finds that this single system which tries to fit a nation of different cultures and backgrounds may create a form of bias as rural schools would be left out of the HPS selection.
“Objectively speaking, it is a given. We have better infrastructure as well as opportunities, which comes as no surprise. However, it is unfair to the people of East Malaysia. It is not their fault that their infrastructure and opportunities are lacking. So should those aspects not be taken into account?”
“However, the concept does provide a good incentive for schools to strive harder – which is good motivation. Perhaps one can say that the HPS is alright but the criteria that it uses could be made better,” said Alvin.
Koh Esther, assistant director at the Academic Development Centre of IPG, opined that there should be a different rating system to ensure that Low Performing Schools (LPS) are not neglected.
“In HPS, funding is provided as an incentive while in LPS, funding might be necessary to ensure a conducive learning environment, which in turn may or may not improve the performance. Perhaps applying New Zealand’s style of decile system might work better,” she said.
The decile ranking used by New Zealand’s Ministry of Education is to determine how much additional public funding a school needs from the broad measure of the aggregated socioeconomic status of the pupils. It is neither used as an indicator of the education standard delivered at a school, nor is it used as a predictor of student achievement.
Nevertheless, there should not be a generalisation that underperforming schools are marked as such only due to socioeconomic and geographic factors only as there are still many aspects that should be taken into consideration.
One of the biggest misconceptions by the public is that underprivileged schools only exist in rural areas. Students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds are usually sidelined as many are not aware that it is difficult for these students to have access to educational opportunities despite living in urban areas.
Teach For Malaysia (TFM) is an organization which aims to end this education disparity by enlisting top young graduates to teach in high-need schools for a period of two years.
Dzameer Dzulkiflee, the co-founder of the organization, said that the key requirement of a TFM fellow is that they have to have the ability to lead and have demonstrated past success before.
“I think what we found is that whether your intention is to make a difference on the kids or whether your intention is to add a notch to your CV, it really doesn’t determine your success in your classroom.”
We’ve seen boys from the last class who failed their Form Four English, but 12 out of 18 of them passed their SPM English. We have examples of success stories like this all across TFM,” he said.
Although Dzameer believes that TFM is effective in its mission to solve education inequity, they have not yet achieved what they had set out to do.
“Our goal is that in two years, we want to set these kids in high-need communities on a different life path — not just for them to get an A, not just for them to gain confidence [sic]. But until now we’re not sure whether we’ve done that or not.”
Socioeconomic factor aside, one other key problematic area of education inequity addressed by the government is the widening of gender gap in academic achievement.
The ‘Lost Boys’ issue is highlighted in the most recent education blueprint. Concerns about how girls are outperforming the boys are often raised by the media as well as in parliamentary meetings and education reports.
Maimuna Hamid Merican, a gender studies lecturer at University Malaya, did a survey based on the CGPA of students of all faculties in UM in the past 12 years and found that the degree of disparity varies between faculties as boys are still doing much better than girls in hard science subjects.
“When I went through the whole 12 years of assessment, the gap between the performance of boys and girls in certain faculties is closing, and it’s a small gap. [It] has been blown out of proportion.
“To make a generalisation and say that boys are underachieving across all universities, all faculties in Malaysia, that, to me, is an inaccurate statement,” she said.
In a Senate meeting in July 2008, Senator Hajah Wan Ramlah Bt. Ahmad brought up the issue of universities in Malaysia seeing a consistently high percentage of female student enrolments in comparison to their male counterparts. “Should the meritocracy be lowered for boys?” she asked, revealing a sentiment that this matter is related to the academic performance of male students.
The education blueprint also states that female students comprise up to 70% of the latest incoming cohort in some universities and is a trend that “if left unchecked, runs the risk of creating a community of educationally marginalised young Malaysian men.”
“The enrolment issue should be separated from the performance issue as this would prove to be problematic for the analysis of this matter. They may have some interconnectedness, but you can’t just sum up and think one is the effect of the other,” said Merican.
“[The Lost Boys issue] is not alarming to the extent that we immediately jump to introducing a quota because if we do that, then you may have a reaction that can create more inequalities. It’s not as simple a solution as that,” she said.
Despite reports indicating that female students are doing better than male students academically, the number of unemployed female graduates is much higher according to the numbers released by the Ministry of Human Resources. This has prompted many to question not only the method of assessing students but the definition of achievement.
“The Lost Boys issue needs to address our pedagogy in teaching, our method of assessing [the students], and the whole ethos behind higher education.
“Only with quality education can you begin to look at the overall result of the students and make a distinction between an achiever and underachiever,” she said.
The government’s efforts to raise the school performance bar and address the issue of education inequity may be commendable but it wouldn’t matter much if all students in Malaysia are performing well if the quality of education is not up to par with international standards.
Education undoubtedly plays a pivotal role in national development, and to improve it is not unlike the twelve-step programme for recovery from behavioural problems. The first step that needs to be taken is self-admission – to admit that our education is in dire need of reform.
When we finally achieve quality in education, only then can Malaysia provide a world-class education system that is able to pave the way for a better future not only for students, but for the nation’s development as well.
Edited for ISSUE Magazine by Derek Kok.